Toby Gerhart takes the handoff and runs into a wall. There’s no daylight, no path. There’s nobody paving the way for him through this seemingly impenetrable roadblock into the uncharted territory beyond. Toby Gerhart is a modern white running back. In this new NFL landscape where speed is king and jerseys are dollars, “white running back” has become an oxymoron. So much so that robotic football examiners feel automatically compelled to call him a full back and lazily compare him to Mike Alstott, a skin-based correlation that couldn’t be more inaccurate.
It’s curious. This is the league where the Rooney Rule has opened the door to an explosion of black coaching talent, where black quarterbacks are now thriving, and where white receivers continue to establish themselves as valuable assets. In the last 30 years, barriers have been dropping like Troy Williamson. Yet the rarity of a successful white running back leaves us scratching our heads and pointing to plodders from the Nixon administration. Why have white running backs not made a real impact in the modern NFL? Is it racial profiling by coaches, scouts and front offices? Some think so. Is it inferior athleticism in an era of speed and agility? Most think so (but won’t say so). The fact of the matter with regard to Toby Gerhart is that a color blind spectator wouldn’t compare him to Mike Alstott, a low-running fullback who simply dropped his head and trucked anything directly in front of him. My objective is to shed the stigma and give you a color blind comparison to the new Minnesota Viking running back. Who does he really run like? Who does he really measure up to?
Here are the draft profiles of two modern NFL running backs:
Now, imagine you're a GM in need of a workhorse running back, and you're on the clock. Without peeking, who's your guy? These backs are nearly identical prospects when the color is removed, but you'd probably lean RB1, with his strength and college running production giving him the edge. RB1 is Toby Gerhart. RB2 is Steven Jackson.
Disclaimer: I am obviously not here to tell you that Toby is the next Steven Jackson. When healthy, Jackson is one of the best all-around backs in the leauge. I'm simply attempting to illustrate that, coming into the league, Toby and Steven were clones of each other, both physically and stylistically. A second rounder and the 51st overall pick, Toby proved slightly superior in the color blind prospect analysis. Yet he was selected nearly a full round later than Steven Jackson, who was taken with the 24th pick in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. Toby Gerhart is surely paying for Tommy Vardell. But nobody holds Steven Jackson responsible for Curtis Enis or Ki-Jana Carter, and nobody ever asked Steven Jackson if he'd consider being a full back at the next level. Why would they?
The similarities don't stop with the style and measurables. Both racked up their stats in the Pac 10 against similar competition, making college production more relevant in this case than most. Both are extremely intelligent, a skill that certainly helped Jackson adapt to the pro game. Both started their NFL careers as backups to elite runners (Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson). Distrubingly, the more you dig, the more you’ll discover that Toby Gerhart and Steven Jackson entered the league with just one major difference, and it had nothing to do with a football.
Proving that Toby Gerhart was discriminated against in the draft would be a seemingly impossible mission. I mean, nobody is actually going to come out and say that they passed on Toby just because he’s white, right? Well, close. Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports recently set the topic on fire with his publishing of this shocking pre-draft quote from an unnamed NFL scout: “He’ll be a great second-round pickup for somebody, but I guarantee you if he was the exact same guy – but he was black – he’d go in the first round for sure.” Thud. I don’t want to believe this. Unfortunately, Steven Jackson was the “exact same guy.”
From his production at Stanford to his freakish athletic ability, a strong case could be made that Toby Gerhart is the most spectacular white running back prospect to enter the NFL in decades. Maybe ever. This fall, all eyes will be on him when he smashes into that wall. Will he break through into daylight, opening up worlds of possibilities for future generations of white running backs? Or will he be stopped in his tracks, further sentencing white running backs to eternal fullbacking?
Never has a single back formation looked so lonely.